In many ways, Heather McNamara is just like any other sophomore at East Islip High School on Long Island’s South Shore. She loves experimenting with makeup. She’s obsessed with uploading selfies. On warm weekends, she and her friends like to make backyard bonfires and toast marshmallows, and she does everything she can to win at Littlest Pet Shop Monopoly.
But when she was a child, she wasn’t expected to make it to middle school. That’s because medically, she is far from ordinary.
As a toddler, Heather experienced severe stomach pain and frequent vomiting. Her doctors were baffled and attributed it to allergies or non-life-threatening stomach issues.
But on September 7, 2007, Heather passed out in her father’s arms, and the McNamaras’ world was forever changed. She was 5 years old. At the hospital, doctors discovered a cancerous tumor at the base of her stomach.
It was removed that day during a delicate surgery. But it returned to her pancreas the following February, this time wrapping itself around the major blood vessels to her spleen, liver, stomach, entire small intestine, and part of her large intestines, and causing a blood clot in the blood vessels of the intestine and the liver. Surgery was deemed too dangerous, if not impossible, and Heather was given an experimental oral chemotherapy. It didn’t work and left her feeling sick. Frantic, her parents spent months searching for a doctor willing to treat Heather, but they received the same answer: The cancer had progressed to an incurable, inoperable stage. Doctors urged her parents to take Heather home so she could live out her last few months peacefully.
Then they met Dr. Tomoaki Kato, the chief of abdominal organ transplants at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. While at the University of Miami, Dr. Kato pioneered and performed “ex vivo” surgery on a 62-year-old patient, in which he’d removed several of her organs in order to extract a tumor similar to Heather’s, and then put them back inside her. The procedure is also called an “auto-transplantation” because the patient’s own organs are re-implanted.
The McNamaras met Dr. Kato on December 10, 2008. “He said he was willing to try and operate on Heather, and that she had a 50-50 chance of surviving the surgery,” says her mother, Tina. It was Heather’s 7th birthday.
In February 2009, Heather underwent the 23-hour procedure. Three surgical teams, led by Dr. Kato, removed her stomach, liver, spleen, pancreas, and large and small intestines, and placed them on ice with a preservation solution. They next removed the tumor while preparing her body to receive the organs that were healthy enough to be re-implanted. Heather’s father stood by to donate his own liver if necessary.